Conquer fears: sickness and pain

What is pain to you, that it makes you fearful of it?
Pain is one of the most effective destroyers of momentum in living our lives. It can destroy motivation, hinder our ability to concentrate and think clearly, and block or veil our senses and so prevent us from perceiving our environment correctly and interacting with it effectively. Since it makes us feel bad, we fail to radiate positive energy, and our surroundings respond correspondingly, drawing the general mood into a downward spiral.
Since pain is often an effect of bodily sickness, fear of pain usually extends to fear of falling ill. And it's not just the accompanying pain that makes illness something to avoid: there's also often an anxiety that it may be 'serious', that it might hamper one's subsequent life by leaving some permanent damage (even the possibility of minor impairments can cause fear: some people are afraid of a strict dietary regime), or even might be terminal.
Observe, however, that this type of fear arises rarely in situations in which there is direct evidence that an illness is serious in this sense; rather, when it is clear what's to expect, people are often calm and composed. This suggests that it is more often the unacknowledged possibility, suddenly coming to consciousness, which disturbs, while a more composed stance comes into play when the actual course of future events is predictable.
Sometimes people report that a sudden heavy illness has transformed their lives by making them aware of the fragility of good health, and the uncertainty of their future in general. (Although in truth this is a little dishonest, for they knew about that all along for some time before; it's just that only now they started to take it seriously.) This does go down further on the path of reflection than many others ever achieve over their whole lives. That's because it makes them take their the whole life into account, not only the current stage with its actual painfulness.
We have to distinguish, however, between two main groups in this: one would be those who learn from such an experience that life time is limited, and wasting it for anything that's not of real value is something they will painfully regret. Those in that group have gained a real insight; chances are that they will now reflect much more carefully about their lives and what they're going to do with them. But there's a second group: those who constantly have to remind everybody (whether they want to hear it or not) how badly a pain they had to go through. This is a habit more targeted at exploiting empathy and feelings of pity (or sometimes a kind of boasting with the terrible things you've been through), and needless to say, it's not a helpful way of looking back for anyone. Again, there's a difference between looking at past ordeals as helping you to become a more solid and determined person in your quest for excellence, and taking them as a mere occasion for some yammering. (Add to this that complaining and whinging invariably increases the perceived badness of any pain, because the imagination amplifies exactly what you're fearing. As with any sort of fear, if you try to retreat from it, the badness will follow you; but if you stand up against it, it will ebb back.)
Remember that pain and illness themselves are indifferent — it's not they that make your live good or bad, but your attitude to whatever happens, including pain and illness. (Obviously, if you fail to avoid some preventable pain because of some foolishness, that is bad in a strict sense, but even then it's not the pain itself that is bad, but your foolishness that brought it about.) In this sense, painful experiences in themselves don't make your life better or worse, but pathetic whining makes it bad, while firm endurance makes it good, despite the misfortunes in it. (Some people's unimpressed holding out against severe illness and unfazed pursuit of their goals in spite of it has made them even widely known and admired for it. Enduring illness is an instance of courage.) It's not the amount of pain that counts in the end, for that's not something you can choose: it's rather how you treat it. Take care.

Conquer fears: death

What is your death to you, that it can frighten you?
Fear of death is a rather diffuse fear, and you'll find it tends to be elusive when you reflect and try to get a grip on it. Being dead is not like an experience (at least none that we can know of, or could have had any previous encounters with); it's not possible to imagine what it is like. And that's not because it is an experience that's so incredibly dreadful, but because it isn't an experience at all. When you're dead, you are no longer there to experience anything, and thus there is no such thing as you, experiencing whatever it may be like to be death. You can of course imagine a pitch-black darkness, accompanied by deep silence. But what you'd imagine here would still be you, as experiencing a situation in which there is no input to the senses — but not a situation in which you're no longer there. You can't imagine being dead, because there is no experience here to present to the imagination.
Sometimes what people imagine when they are afraid is not so much death itself, but the process of dying; they might imagine it as painful, or as involving inabilities for long periods. Another worry might concern the dignity they hope to be capable of during their last moments; this is often more about the perceptions of others than about themselves. These sorts of fear aren't quite as intangible as fear of death, but they're of a different sort, and we'll deal with them some other time.
Likewise, you can of course imagine how the life of others, such as your friends and children, might look like once you're gone, how they will live on without you. You can fear the impact that your death will have on the life of others, and that's indeed a deeper point: certainly the well-being of at least some people around you should be a matter important to you. And obviously, this significance lasts longer than merely to the end of your life's time. (Whereas your own sorrow and pain does end at that point.) In fact, most of us make some provisions for those we love exactly because we envisage the possibility we might not be around at all those future times when they might come into some need.
However, while it is a valid concern to some extent, we must also consider that as a matter of fact life will go on for all those we leave behind. In most cases at least, they will eventually recover from their loss. (And this is also what we should wish for them, unflattering for ourselves though it may be. If a person can never go on with their life after the loss of someone, however close they may have been, that shows something deeply problematic about the relationship that's been between them: it would look more like one of dependence and needfulness rather than one between people in full possession of their own integrity as a person.)
Another fear is that of an unusually early death, one at a time that marks perhaps only the middle of the average life time of the people around you. The sources of this fear are sometimes obviously questionable or outright foolish (such as jealousy: are others better than I am, so that fate lets them live longer? — or a kind of greed: wouldn't I've been able to travel to even more interesting locations, or could I've enjoyed more good food and wine if I'd lived twice as long?) In other cases, what disturbs those with this kind of fear rather is the thought that some of their important projects will be spoiled: they won't be able to complete some work that is most dear to them. This thought, though it's a worthier worry, still betrays a mild confusion. It has been clear and certain all along that death may catch you early, forcefully ending some projects you hoped you'd be able to complete; it's an ever-present possibility that you may fail to achieve some of the goals you think of as important. That's not of course a reason to refrain from taking on these goals at all; yet there has never been a guarantee that you would reach them, and if, in the end, you don't, that is not a basis for justified disappointment. If there's disappointment, then it comes from some false hope which you adopted in the course of pursuing your projects.
If you've come to make a project of such a sort a life-defining project, then you've chosen a project of the wrong sort. A proper life-defining project, a project that results in making your life a good one, can't rely on the assumption that your life will last a certain minimum amount of time (an assumption which cannot be guaranteed).
Death can happen at any time, in any one of many different ways. But even if it puts an end to a good life, the mere fact of its ending doesn't make that life less good. How could it? Every life has to end at some time, and when that time is will be arbitrary. Goodness of life is a quality, not a quantity. A life is good because of how well it's lived, not because of how long it continues. Take care.

Make excellence your aim

What sort of person lives a good life? An excellent person, a person of excellence. But then what does excellence mean? Since it is excellence as a person, we're talking about a quality of character.
Changing the center of discussion to talking about a good life in terms of the excellence of persons is an important move. Many things that happen in lives are accidental; not everything about them is within our sphere of influence. In matters of character however, of seeking correct views and developing adequate feelings about what's going on around you, of choosing carefully and aiming to do the right thing, it's always clear who is responsible: you are. Thus, although it doesn't add anything specific yet, the change of perspective from looking at what makes a life good (the entry point of ethical discussion) to asking what sort of person would lead a good life marks some progress already. Of course, this is still only the beginning of the journey, since now we've our work cut out in saying more specifically what it means to be excellent.
The term 'excellence', for one thing, can mean different things. One of its typical senses is that of being outstanding, being better at something, or more of something, than others. This sense implies a comparison with someone else; it's not what I mean by excellence. (It's not a helpful notion, for it makes excellence something that depends on external circumstance: you might be a bad person indeed, but live among a group of much worse ones, and in abominable circumstances — does that make you an excellent person? In that common sense, it would seem so. But not in the sense which I use; one wouldn't be excellent if one were just simply the smallest evildoer within sight.) And if it is not a notion based on a comparison, then we can't explain it in terms of degree either, for that would require some quantitative scale, some unit in which to measure.
It's often easier to recognize failure to be excellent than to detect excellence itself. (Candidates for excellent behavior may still turn out to fall short of actual excellence for many reasons, although it didn't show at first sight, whereas apparent non-excellence is rarely re-interpretable as being in fact excellent.) Worse, however, than failing to be excellent in a particular situation, is not even accepting that excellence is what we should go for (if we want to lead a good life). Not managing to achieve it, in a given instance, does at worst mean that you have to try harder next time, that you're not yet where you want to be (which, in all probability, will be the case most of the time). Not even aiming at it, on the other hand, indicates you're seriously misdirected, and with time you won't get closer, but you'll drift away from your most important goal (that of leading a good life, and spending your time wisely).
Such misdirection can show itself in many different ways. It may lead you towards greed in one of its myriads of forms: going for pleasure and convenience, splendor and luxury, power and wealth, fame and celebrity — any one of those false aims (or a combination of them) which have no measure built into them, which will drive you into wanting more and more, which will get stale under your hands even before your enjoyment of them ends, which will leave you with nothing of real substance after you have thrown a lot of precious life time after them; it may have you pushed around by fears and weaknesses: cherishing foolish hopes and illusions, giving in to nebulous anxieties and unsubstantiated fears, indulging in pointless lamentations and uncontrolled flare-ups, favoring aimless industriousness and taking the line of least resistance whenever there's a chance of getting through with it — all of them currents that will take you into regions where they get stronger and stronger, draining away your strength and freedom little by little every time you go along with them. The only way to lead a good life is to resist them always; in effect, that is what it means to become excellent. It may not work in many instances, but unless you make it your primary goal, the cases in which you fail and end up drifting in the wrong direction will outweigh those in which you do the right thing, form correct views and respond with adequate feelings. Unless you make a constant and determined effort to move in the direction of living a good life, unless, that is, you aim to become excellent, you will lose this struggle. It's an upstream swim: you can't hand yourself over to the current, let things drift just as they want, and still reach your destination. Take care.

Varieties of falling short

Once you've figured out that quality and strength of character is the single determining goal that should structure a life, a complicated net of paths to achieving that goal is laid out for you. Choices must be made all the time, and there are plenty ways of going wrong.
Let's start with feelings. Some people get emotional about the wrong sort of thing all the time; take for instance those who are unduly concerned with the opinions of others. They will be angry at you if on some occasion you spoil the effect they intended to make; they'll become nervous when they're running into a situation where they suspect they look bad; they are elated and inordinately cheerful when they've just landed a hit with their audience.
When people acquire such a disposition, then it isn't just their feelings which harden into a pattern. Actions follow: they will begin to do foolish things just to make a good impression, refrain from doing sensible things if there isn't an effect to make, they will make it a priority to seek occasions where they're seen in a positive light, ignoring other options which might have been better for them, all things considered. And finally, their views will be distorted: they will form opinions and beliefs, especially on what is good and what is bad for them, which are above all influenced by how well people think of them, and not by what is actually the case.
Just as the opinion of others can play this role of a false good, other things might as well. Some people get emotional whenever wealth and money are concerned, some when their personal wellness is touched, when physical comfort and the pleasantness of their surroundings is affected. As with those who are fixated on the opinions of others, those who make money or well-being the central concern of their lives are not just disposed to slide into progressively stronger feelings about them; they will also quickly have their actions, views and with them their long-term goals and projects influenced and finally dominated by them. In the end, there is a good chance that they'll have spent their whole lives chasing a false good, something that, as they are likely to find out, is not, and never has been, worth it.
Chasing false goods, however, is only one way of going wrong. Another one is to develop an aversion. Bodily pain, for instance, or being in a crowd with other people, is something that occurs from time to time in anybody's life. But if you've got an aversion against that sort of thing, then you will try to avoid it at all costs, and whenever possible. In the end, even having to face a single instance begins to look unbearable to you. In reality, you can at times avoid unpleasant or painful experiences, but you can't avoid them altogether, and avoiding is not always among the sensible options. Those who drift into strong feelings whenever there's even a small probability that they will have painful or unpleasant experiences, those who, that is, are subject to aversions of this sort, display the same pattern as those who chase false goods — they're just not chasing, but fleeing, and it's not false goods, but false evils which they are obsessed with. And again, it isn't just their feelings which become ingrained as a pattern: in their views and actions they will show the same unbecoming tendencies, they will form incorrect beliefs and act insensibly whenever their false evil is at the horizon.
(Especially if you think of more specific aversions, for instance to certain animals such as spiders, there are of course psychological or psychoanalytical explanations for these phenomena. After all, psychology includes exactly that: the study of these phenomena, and possible therapies. In addition, however, to what the best psychological theories take them to be, we always have to ask ourselves what stance to take to them in the first place: we should find an evaluative attitude that is based on reflection, and related to what we think is good or bad for us. If we don't, how could we ever know which of them to fight and which to tolerate? So, are we to simply accept them into our psyche? Perhaps even cite, as an excuse, certain reductionist theories which tell us that everything is hard-wired into our genes anyway, or that our childhood experiences will determine how we feel and what we do, whether we recognize it or not? Are we going to settle for an 'I will try my best, sometimes, perhaps'-kind of stance? Or shall we rather think it through what exactly the impact of such personality attributes on our own lives would be, and work hard to eliminate them, as a priority, exactly to the extent we take them to be harmful — even if that means to engage in a life-long battle with ourselves?)
So far we've only looked at getting emotional about the wrong sort of thing. There is another way to go wrong in your feelings, actions and views: you can become disposed to getting emotional about a range of different things, but always with the same emotion. This is what's called a proclivity: a habit of falling into the same sort of emotion all over, whether it's appropriate or not. Examples are timidity, or enviousness. If anything can frighten you (including a lot of things that most people wouldn't be afraid of), or if everything you see in use or in possession of someone else inflames your desire, then you're certainly not on a good path. It's this time not so much a wrong evaluation, taking a false good (or a false evil) as something that is genuinely good (or bad). It's rather a habit of falling into an emotion type too quickly and too easily, a proneness to fall for them on too many occasions, most of the times inadequately.
All sorts of habits (in feelings, actions, and in views) are in fact rooted in repetition, and learning: learning proceeds often by repeating some behavior. Habits thus originate in oft-repeated behavior which has transformed into dispositions to act the same way again and again. They've become traits of your personality, and so form an important aspect of what you are. And once they are in place, in many situations feelings, views and actions flow in a natural and often involuntary way from them. When they are thus ingrained, it is not easy to even recognize them; and you cannot change them immediately at will; but you can change them by building up alternative habits from more appropriate responses, which look to the real value of things. Of course, that requires patience and will. But it can be done.
And because patience and determination themselves are qualities of character, from a lack of them in forming good habits comes yet another way of going wrong: your good habits can be unstable, not yet capable of persisting through unfavorable circumstances, of remaining constant over a broad range of situations. That's what is called an infirmity of character: when a habit isn't hardened enough, and there are relapses. Infirmities are both a good sign and a bad one: for they show that you are on the right path, but they also indicate that you must push on and get further on it. Take care.

Good, bad, and indifferent

When reflecting, have you noticed that good and bad are mostly the categories that come to mind when deciding what to go after and what to avoid? Motivation comes from values, and we value what we're judging good or bad. (Values can be positive or negative, and these two directions correspond to what we take as good or bad in what we go for, or avoid.)
As before, what is meant by good or bad here has a strict and special meaning. 'Good' and 'bad' are titles reserved for what makes our life (seen as a whole), a good, successful one, or prevents it from being so. And that is not meant in a superficial sense of success; it is only if you think that you could die at any moment and still find that, all things considered, no things kept secret, everything reflected on as thoroughly as possible, that this life was well worth living it, then that's a good life. If you think you've been the person that you should have been, that you've made the best from what you've been dealt, that's what makes your life successful. Whatever brings your life closer to this condition can be called 'good', in the strict sense that we're talking about. What keeps your life from being so is 'bad'. The good and bad are precisely those things that make a difference in shaping your life. (Everything else, all that is neither good nor bad, is indifferent, in that it doesn't make a difference.)
Are money, fame or reputation good? No, they are not. Are weak and unthinking decisions bad? Yes indeed, they are. Are pain and losses bad things? No, they are indifferent. Are kindness, courage, generosity good things? Yes, for they do make a difference. You get the idea.
Indifferents are usually not undifferentiated when compared with each other: there are better or worse choices with respect to external things. Pleasant experiences are preferable over painful ones; a well-paying job, or one that brings a higher reputation, would be preferred over one that doesn't; if you can reach a goal easier, you'd avoid hardship or efforts.
However, that there is a better or worse choice with respect to something (for you to make) doesn't already make that something good or bad. Whether the objects of your choices (the things you choose from) are good, bad, or indifferent, depends on what those objects are. They're always merely indifferents if they're externals. Making good choices itself, on the other hand, is a good thing; deciding in an unconsidered or weak manner is bad; for how you exercise your choices (both those regarding externals and those in matters of character) depends on what sort of person you are, and how in general you live your live.
It may seem surprising, even harsh, to think of pains and losses, as I said, as indifferents. Is not the loss of a loved one, say, a bad thing for you, and quite obviously so? And isn't this true in general of the pain that comes from personal relationships that don't work out: the agony of being rejected, the fear of accidents that might bereave us, the nightmare of seeing ourselves betrayed by those we had loved and trusted, and who now turn away and hurt us? What can be called a bad thing if it's not that sort of experience?
The very last word in this formulation is revealing: should, in your view, an experience, a simple quality of how it feels, be significant enough to give it reign over the whole of your life? Is any pain, however intense it may be felt at first, a matter so important that the whole weight of your character, all your views and all your actions, should be focused on avoiding it, or coping with it once it's clear it couldn't be avoided? Think again: if you permit a single sort of unpleasant experience, a mere feeling of pain, such authority; if you allow the accidents of life around you shape the goals and contents of the only thing that's really, truly, yours (that is: your life time) — isn't that a most unworthy discount of that which really matters, and in the interest of nothing more than a mere passing pain?
There is no question that the experience of loss is intense, and treating losses as indifferents does not imply to take them lightly. As long as there's a choice (and as long as it is compatible with good qualities of character), you'll certainly do whatever is required to avoid them. Caution against dangers, a dedication to the well-being of those you love; a general pro-attitude towards what's in their best interest — all these are usually good indicators for the right priorities and good choices in what you do. Nor means treating losses as indifferents a discounting of the value of that person whom you lost, or of that relationship's value. It does mean treating the event, the turn of fate that brought about this loss as something that you don't give control over your life. If it had to be so that a loved one was with you for only a given time, then that is how it had to be; your life's been all the better for it, while it lasted. Unless you brought about the end of your relationship yourself by acting wrongly (whether it was wicked or just careless), that end isn't something within your control, and thus it can't be bad, just indifferent.
Of course, you might think that compared with what could have been, with a possible longer time together if things'd have gone differently, you are now off worse. But that comparison is vain. Once more: if some action of your own made things go badly, then there'd be room for regret. You might compare what is the case now with what might have been the case, and thus get clear about the consequences which your action had. But if it wasn't up to you, then there is nothing much to learn from that comparison. That which comes out of external circumstance alone is neither good nor bad, but indifferent.
In addition you should note that all personal relationships, even the most intense and stable ones, have their end date written on them; nothing lasts forever, and the chances are that you will live through quite a number of times when things are taken out of your hands and you're powerless. The other half of a relationship may leave it, or may even die. If you hope, of any of your current relationships, that somehow you'll avoid its end indefinitely, then you live a foolish hope. (You're only spared that experience when the other half outlives you; but then, the lot of loss will fall to them. That doesn't make it any better, at least not if you seriously cared about that other person.) The good in love and friendship is in the valuable time that you can spend in those relationships as long as they last; and if that time ends in the case of one of them, it wouldn't be wise to let all others suffer by wasting energy on something that is irretrievable now. Take care.
Copyright © 2007-2012 by Leif Frenzel. All rights reserved.